STS - conferences, IST2012

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The city as a nexus of sustainability transitions
Harald Rohracher, Philipp Späth

Last modified: 2012-03-19


Innovation policies in the European Union are increasingly addressing ‘grand challenges’ such as climate change, resource depletion or aging societies. Such transformations go far beyond conventional product or process innovations and require a restructuring of broad socio-technical regimes, e.g. the built environment, systems of mobility, the energy system or the way we organize processes of production and consumption. The focus of research on socio-technical transitions has predominantly been a national or European level, while the role of place as well as the city level as part of multi-scalar governance systems has been largely neglected. However, the distributed nature and specific socio-technical dynamics of large-scale transition processes towards greater sustainability makes cities an important arena of infrastructure transformation and a crucial nexus between different levels of governance and strands of socio-political discourse.

With a focus on the Cities of Graz, Freiburg and other European cities we will discuss what roles cities may play in transformation processes towards sustainable infrastructure systems, how opportunity structures for a greater urban role in such transitions look like and which limitations as well as specific advantages exist at the city level. We will be dealing with questions such as:

- How can cities serve as a place of experimentation and social learning for sustainability transitions and how can they support the strengthening and growth of greener socio-technical configurations?

- How are changes in the governance of infrastructures (e.g. decentralisation, market liberalisation) influencing the potential role of cities in sustainability transitions?

- What is the role and dynamics of discourses and visions around urban sustainability transitions? How do such visions emerge? How do they interact with discourses and visions at different scales?

- How important have external pressures (energy prices, particulate matter, new regulatory context etc.) been to destabilise the existing regime? How heterogeneous and inconsistent are urban energy or transport systems and to which extent can such frictions be used to promote change in certain parts of the system?

- How is it possible to create and keep up transition momentum? To which extent and with which strategies can urban energy transformations become irreversible, e.g. by social and material entrenchment?

- Can we speak at all of ‘transitions’ at a city level? We are especially interested in the room for manoeuvring for cities that is left by institutional contexts and socio-technical networks beyond the city boundaries.